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More ADHD diagnoses mean more kids on medication


Some kids have short attention spans, and can act hyper or impulsive. But do these kids all need to be medicated? Today, 3.5 million children in the United States are on medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.

This week on Take Care, Alan Schwarz, a writer for The New York Times who has reported extensively on ADHD, discusses the rise of ADHD diagnoses in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 11 percent of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, but according to Schwarz, some of them may be misdiagnoses.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Alan Schwarz.

According to Schwarz, there isn’t much difference between ADHD and ADD. ADD is an older term, which was used to describe one of the subtypes of ADHD. Schwarz says ADHD is marked by traits in the following three categories: inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. A child can have ADHD without having hyperactive symptoms; that was formerly known as ADD. But Schwarz says that is now known as the inattentive type of ADHD. He says the hyperactive symptoms, are generally found more in boys than anybody else.

Schwarz says that up until recently, children with ADHD have been dismissed as bad kids, or simply ignored and left behind. But when better medications were developed in the 1990s, it became much easier to help children who had been diagnosed.   

“I think we’ve started to appreciate just how much trouble these kids were having, kids with extraordinary low attention spans, impulsivity, hyperactivity,” Schwarz said. “And then in the late ‘90s and 2000s, because of very good formulations of medication, it became very easy to say, ‘hey, my kid has a short attention span, my kid is very hard to control. Perhaps some Ritalin or Adderall will get him or her, usually him, to calm down, make his teacher’s life less insane.’”

According to Schwarz, ADHD affects 1-in-5 high school boys. But the diagnosis of the disorder has been rising steadily for about 20 years, and now Schwarz says about 15 percent of children have been diagnosed.

“I think a lot of people are concerned, though, that we’re kind of pathologizing childhood,” Schwarz said. “We’re taking what is relatively normal, now perhaps annoying, and perhaps above average, but nonetheless relatively normal behavior and medicating it as if it were a condition bad enough to warrant that medication.”

Schwarz says that even though not every child who is diagnosed actually needs medicine, for those who are diagnosed correctly, it can make a positive difference in their education.

“Basically, it can slow the world down for these kids, allow them to take in information better, and that may allow the teaching of some skills to come through,” Schwarz said. “We need to make sure that we take care of the ones who are absolutely real and cannot be left behind.”

But Schwarz also points out that there is some discrepancy in the numbers when it comes to ADHD diagnoses, and he says this shows that there many children who are misdiagnosed.

“An awful lot of medical people insist that 5 to 8 percent of kids have ADHD, and so many of them are being missed out there,” Schwarz said. “And hey, that may be true, but then why are 15 percent of children being diagnosed? I mean, it’s twice as many as it should be, which means more than half the time they’re getting it wrong. No one seems to be making them accountable to that.”